2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins
What the Pittsburgh Penguins had become —
on the ice, a juggernaut poised to complete
a rags-to-riches championship run, and off the ice, a cherished component of the fabric of their community
— was personified on the night they didn’t win the Cup.
The date was June 9, 2016. The Penguins were
preparing to host Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final
against the San Jose Sharks.
They were leading the series, three games
to one, and they were one win away from
celebrating the first won-in-the-city-of-Pittsburgh championship since Bill Mazeroski took the
Yankees’ Ralph Terry “dahn-tahn” in the bottom
of the ninth in October 1960.
After a strong second period, the Penguins rattle opposing goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defeat the New York Rangers, 4-1, on March 3, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins, as had been their habit since their final seasons playing in Mellon Arena, had set up a giant video screen outside the lower entrance to their home arena, then called Consol Energy Center, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place.
The idea, as always, was to accommodate fans wishing to participate in the experience but unable to get a ticket. The response in this instance had been overwhelming, however, and face-off was still a couple of hours away.
“I was looking out my office window, and I saw there were people all across Washington Place,” Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse recalls. “I grabbed Travis [Williams, the team’s COO] and said, ‘We gotta go out and take a look at this.’
“It was about 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. We went out there with James [Santilli, the Penguins’ vice president of marketing] and there were people all the way up to Centre Avenue.
“I said, ‘What’s your overflow plan?’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘People are going to keep coming. You have to have a plan.’
“James said, ‘We have a screen on call that can get here within half an hour.’ Travis said, ‘I’ll call the Mayor’s Office and see if we can get Market Square.’ They reacted quickly, no bureaucracy — it was, ‘What can we do?’ And by 6:30 p.m., that screen was in place in Market Square.”
The Sharks ended up winning Game 5, 4-2.
The championship celebration had to wait until the Pens’ 3-1 victory in Game 6 in San Jose.
But the Penguins estimated that more than 20,000 people had shown up outside of what is now PPG Paints Arena (and another 15,000 or so at Market Square) just to be a part of what might have taken place during and after Game 5.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Penguins clinch the series by defeating the New York Rangers, 6-3, on April 23, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
“I had never seen the city like that,” Captain Sidney Crosby says in “Pittsburgh is Home: The Story of the Penguins,” the team’s 50th anniversary video. “It was so hard to keep your emotions in check for that game.”
It was a scene that went beyond memorable. It was unforgettable.
“Your first goal sticks out,” Crosby continues in the video. “Those overtime wins in the playoffs, they stick out. But that one thing I think I’ll remember is that Game 5 and driving in for that game.
“You’ve been in different situations before, and it’s like, ‘OK, it’s just another game, it’s just another game.’ To see that is something. Yeah, I’ll always remember that scene.”
It’s one of the reasons the Penguins are the recipients of Pittsburgh’s Magazine’s 2016 Pittsburghers of the Year award — an honor the team accepts with deference to the people that, according to Morehouse, made such a designation possible.
“It’s the fans that are the Pittsburghers of the Year, not the team,” Morehouse says. “We are who our fans are, and our fans are some of the greatest fans in the world.
“Pittsburgh sports fans have a depth and an enthusiasm that other cities don’t have. That’s not just qualitative; when we did research a few years ago when we were thinking of moving, we had a small market. But this market performs like a bigger market for us, for the Steelers and for the Pirates.
“That plays out in those kind of examples.”
The example Game 5 became, for instance, was not without its concerns.
“We had to implement an immediate public safety plan, and we really didn’t have the personnel [readily available] to deploy at the second site,” says Mayor Bill Peduto, whose passions include hockey as well as politics. City officials responded by redeploying police from other zones.
“I remember sitting in my seat at the game thinking how great it would be if the Pens were able to win the Cup and I actually got to see it [in person],” the mayor recalled. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, if they win the Cup there’s no way those people are going to want to stay outside [of the arena] — and there’s no way we’re going to be able to hold a perimeter’ [and keep fans from entering the arena site]. I thought, ‘It’s going to be like a Grateful Dead concert.’
“For the final period I sat in hope and fear … Where would they all have gone,” Peduto says he wondered at the time. “After a disappointing loss, they went home. After a win? It’s anybody’s guess.
The Penguins win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center after Nick Bonino’s goal late in the third period breaks a 2-2 tie with the San Jose Sharks.
“It was a big challenge for the Department of Public Safety and the Bureau of Police, and they were already stretched thin. They had protocols in place to secure the South Side, Lawrenceville, Downtown [and the North Side] — operations that had been prepared for days in case the Pens would win to keep the city safe. Then you had a variable thrown in, adding [20,000] people, that really stretched it.
“I went and met with the public safety director before the game began at the command center [at the arena] just to see if he was OK and if the operations of all public safety bureaus were being implemented. I could see the stress of that audible being called.”
What ultimately resulted was a confirmation rather than a celebration. Not that Head Coach Mike Sullivan needed any more convincing by then.
“The fan support is overwhelming,” he maintains. “And what I’ve really grown to appreciate is, for a smaller city, Pittsburgh is a major-league sports town. The support that the fans offer to the pro sports teams in this city is second to none.
“When you look back at the Stanley Cup run that we had and how excited people got about the run, there was a buzz in the city. During that time I couldn’t go to a restaurant or a grocery store without somebody coming up and saying, ‘Good luck, the team looks great.’ People were genuinely, sincerely excited about what we could potentially accomplish.”
That the Penguins were ultimately able to accomplish what they did speaks to the ability of the team and the organization to persevere, to dig deep when things looked bleak, and to roll up their sleeves and go to work when tough jobs had to be done — traits Pittsburghers have always appreciated. Those qualities began to resonate with the Penguins shortly after Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015.
But the march of the Penguins and the growth of Pittsburgh’s championship collection dates back to June 6, 2014 — the date General Manager Jim Rutherford was hired.
“I remember the discussions we had,” Morehouse says. “Everything we talked about in those interviews, he implemented — and within two years he won a Stanley Cup. It’s an extraordinary job of following a strategy.
“What he said in those meetings was: ‘First of all, the playoffs are different from the regular season, and you need a different kind of team. Second, young people bring more than just their ability. Every day at the rink is the best day of their lives, and that can have an impact on your veterans, especially veterans that have pressure all the time. And then you need some veteran leadership around your veteran leaders. You need to take some of the burden away from your superstars.’
Bryan Rust scores the first goal of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins would go on to win Game 1, 3-2, on May 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
“That’s the core of what the strategy was to win the Stanley Cup. Things happened that made it better. We didn’t anticipate having six players from [AHL]Wilkes-Barre/Scranton up here at one time. But the dynamic that created was: They weren’t sitting in the corner cowering as rookies. There were six of them that were with each other and had confidence playing for a coach that they had played for in the minors. They knew what the expectations were, and they played like it.”
It didn’t all happen according to plan. The trade for winger Phil Kessel, prior to the 2015-16 season, was made to acquire a goal-scoring complement to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Kessel didn’t find the scoring touch the Pens had anticipated until late in the season.
Sullivan, a former head coach of the Boston Bruins and a long-time NHL assistant coach, had been hired to coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, essentially standing in
reserve in the event a change at the NHL level would prove necessary.
“You always, as a general manager, anticipate there could be a change at some time,” Rutherford acknowledged last May.
Kris Letang battles for the puck as the Penguins take on the Sharks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 1, 2016. The Penguins won the game, 2-1, and led the series 2-0 after Conor Sheary scored a tie-breaking goal in overtime.
By the time the Pens became convinced such a change was indeed due, they were looking like a team that wouldn’t even make the playoffs.
Trades for puck-moving defenseman Trevor Daley in December and speedy winger Carl Hagelin in January fit the profile the Penguins were trying to create — in theory. They were made, however, with some uncertainty as to how they’d pan out.
“I really hope this works out — because this was my call,” Sullivan told one staffer about the acquisition of Hagelin, a player he had coached with the New York Rangers.
And no one in the organization anticipated players such as Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Matt Murray — all arriving from the AHL at various times and seamlessly filling voids created by injury or inconsistency.
It took Pascal Dupuis being forced to retire for medical reasons to clear up salary-cap space to make trades.
It took a March injury to Malkin for the Penguins to stumble onto the combination that became the fabled “HBK Line” — Hagelin, center Nick Bonino and Kessel — the first line in franchise history to have its name chanted during playoff games.
And it took an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury for Murray to emerge as the team’s go-to goaltender, much sooner than anticipated.
“Anyone [who] tells you it’s our strategy and our strategy alone is lying,” Morehouse says. “It takes a lot of luck to win a championship.”
Perhaps the most significant challenge to becoming a championship team was cohesiveness; the need for the Penguins to function as a championship-caliber unit.
They long had been recognized for their star power, but since they last claimed the Stanley Cup in 2009, that alone hadn’t been good enough. They became something different in the past season, something more than the sum of their high-profile parts.
Once that happened, they were nearly unstoppable.
“I know there are a lot of stories that surround this group,” Sullivan observed on May 26, after a 2-1 victory in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning had delivered the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Final. “The greatest story is the group itself.
“When you’re a part of something that’s bigger than yourself, it’s a special feeling, and I know these guys have it right now.”
Perhaps that’s what truly resonated with the Penguins’ legions of devoted followers.
With the thousands upon thousands who showed up for the home games with no hope of actually attending, wearing their jerseys and lugging folding chairs just for a chance to be on the outside looking in.
With those who offered Sullivan a pat on the back at a gas station.
With sellout crowds that rocked the foundation of an arena that had previously earned an unfair reputation as a venue more stale than loud.
It’s the type of civic embrace that helps to endear players to a city just as quickly as the city attaches to them.
Consider winger Chris Kunitz’ stated appreciation of the city prior to arriving via a trade in February 2009.
“Zero,” says Kunitz, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan who played college hockey at Ferris State, in Big Rapids, Mich., and in the NHL previously with Anaheim.
That’s changed considerably.
“It would have been tough to put Pittsburgh on a map before we started living here and started to realize how almost Midwest the people are, how family-forward everyone is and how inviting they are for us, as outsiders, to come into the community,” Kunitz says. “All of our kids have been born here in Pittsburgh. We’ve met a lot of people outside of hockey. We’re fortunate to be part of such a great organization. But the community around us and the people that you meet at the hockey rinks or the dance studios, the things our kids are involved in, really make it feel like home.
Winger Phil Kessel, who joined the Penguins prior to the 2015-16 season and became part of the fan-favorite “HBK Line” with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, takes the ice in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 12, 2016 at the SAP Center in San Jose.
“When I’m on the road, we have friends that come and help out my wife and take our kids to different activities. And just being in the community and being in the neighborhood for Halloween, you realize how much fun it is to be in the Pittsburgh area.
“It seems like every holiday that passes by, we get asked to come to somebody’s house or get involved with their family for Christmas or Thanksgiving, just friends and people who have kids the same age and do the same activities in the neighborhood.”
Center Matt Cullen had played with Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the New York Rangers, Ottawa, Minnesota and Nashville before signing with the Penguins as a free agent in August 2015.
It was only then that he was able to begin discovering Pittsburgh and its surroundings beyond the typical airport-bus-hotel-bus-rink-bus-airport exposure NHL visiting teams generally are afforded.
“You just stay Downtown,” Cullen says. “Downtown is fine, but it’s not unlike a lot of other downtowns. It’s a city. But when you get to know it, the ins and the outs, it’s pretty cool. You don’t get to fully appreciate it when you visit from another team.
“I had no idea before I got here what beautiful country it is, I love that. I love taking the kids for hikes up in the woods and going for bike rides and stuff. In that regard it reminds me of home.” Cullen was born in Virginia, Minn., and grew up in Moorhead, Minn.
“The people are nice, the pace of life is the same,” he says. “It’s not too crazy, not like big-city crazy where everything’s 100 mph.”
Captain Sidney Crosby hoists the Stanley Cup as the Penguins celebrate after defeating the Sharks in Game 6 of the Finals on June 12, 2016 at the SAP Center.
That changed temporarily on June 9, 2016 — with the Cup within reach.
Everyone associated with the Penguins, it seemed, was flabbergasted by the passion the fans brought to Game 5.
And — public safety concerns aside — it was appreciated.
Cullen characterizes Pittsburgh as “a hockey town,” and that’s a designation a hockey lifer doesn’t take for granted.
“People love hockey here,” he says. “And for us, hockey is what we do — but it’s also kind of our lives, you know? So to be in a place where it’s really valued, everything that you do, and people respect and enjoy what you do, it means a lot.”
Kunitz adds: “If any of the guys stop and talk to somebody, they usually make reference to how hard-working the guys are or how relentless, how tough. It’s not like they just want to praise all the nice scoring plays and things like that. They have a real ability to praise the guys that go out and do the tough jobs, that have that hard-working mentality every day.”
No less should be expected from the 2016 Pittsburghers of the Year.
And no less will be anticipated from them in 2017. Considerations already are being made for this year’s public gatherings, should the Penguins once again rally toward the Stanley Cup.
“We’ll do our part,” Peduto says. “The guys gotta do theirs and get back into that Final.”
Print and broadcast journalist Mike Prisuta is the host of the Steelers Radio Network pregame show and has covered sports in Pittsburgh since 1985. He writes “Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section” each week for pittsburghmagazine.com and is the sports director for WDVE-FM.